Films with impact

A slew of new topical documentaries highlights the continued relevance of the art form.

The New York author Colin Beavan and his daughter in the documentary No Impact Man.
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"I saw No Impact Man at a film festival and I witnessed the reaction of 500 people and I knew we had to buy it," says Laura Michalchyshyn, the president of Planet Green, the environmentally friendly US TV network recently launched by the Discovery Channel. No Impact Man is one of a trio of high-impact, activist documentary films out this autumn that are hitting home in a country still reeling from the economic downturn.

It stars Colin Beavan, a New York writer who decides to spend a year consuming as little as possible and thus minimise his impact on the environment. He bikes around the city, eats locally grown food and uses little electricity - the admirably committed Beavan walks up 25 flights of stairs rather than take an lift. Unfortunately, his wife does not quite share his commitment. Throughout the documentary, she shoots him icy stares as she is forced to throw out the TV, quit her Starbucks habit and wash her smalls in the sink. calls the film " a hilarious, riveting must-see about a family as it breaks down almost all the way and then reinvents itself".

Also released in the US this month, Crude, directed by Joe Berlinger, details the oil company Texaco's alleged destruction of the Ecuadorean Amazon Rain Forest and the $27 billion (Dh99bn) lawsuit brought against the firm. The local lawyer Pablo Fajardo seems to be banging his head against a wall of indifference until Vanity Fair does a profile on him, and Trudie Styler, the wife of Sting, flies to the jungle and persuades the reformed Police to do a benefit concert, after which Sting presents Fajardo to the press. The New York Times called it a "legal thriller with rare depth and power".

American Casino, meanwhile, has been described as a "sub prime catastrophe doc" that flips between highfalutin' Wall Street traders explaining how they lost a ton of money and real-life poor folks who are bearing the brunt of their actions. These films are three examples of a continuing trend, says Michalchyshyn. There have been more theatrically released documentaries in the past five years than ever before.

The reason? It is partly an antidote to the brevity of online news and partly, says the filmmaker Nick Watts, who made the Channel 4 documentary The Human Footprint, it has to do with the filmmaker Michael Moore and the success of his polemical docs Bowling for Columbine (2002), Fahrenheit 9/11 (2005), and Sicko (2007), three of the highest-grossing documentaries of all time. "Moore showed that long-form documentary could make a powerful case for a particular cause," says Watts. "This was incredibly liberating for filmmakers, who were tired of the US news media's so-called even-handed approach that was too often manipulated by filibustering organisations with something to hide."

All three films certainly have a strong point of view. Both Crude and American Casino use juxtaposed images to cut through endless talking heads to make their point. In Crude, Texaco representatives attempt to evade blame for a massive oil spill as images of babies suffering painful sores as a result of the spillage are flashed on to the screen. In American Casino, Alan Greenspan admits to Congress there was "a flaw in his conceptual framework"as we learn that swimming pools in foreclosed Californian homes are a hotbed of West Nile Virus. As traders explain what happened during the economic meltdown, we cut to a mother reduced to tears when she discovers her mortgage company has refused her cheque.

These films are irresistible, says Michalchyshyn, because they reflect the human condition. "They create dialogue and debate, and that is good TV," she says. "But they are also eloquent and provocative and as good as any feature film. That is our message: documentaries can be as good as feature films." To that end, she has launched a feature-length documentary slot of Planet Green called Doc Bloc. She will screen No Impact Man next April once it has completed its cinematic run. She says she tried to buy Crude but lost out to another company. "That's a great film and I am glad its going to find its way on to TV. At their root all these documentaries are about extraordinary people trying to improve the world. Who wouldn't want to see that? Who wouldn't find that inspiring?"